Yesterday’s massive demonstrations — in Paris, as well capitals around the world, including Toronto – offered a vivid reminder that 21st century terrorism is a horror story that plays out in the streets of global cities.
These urban areas provide the networks, anonymity, capital, equipment and targets that terrorist groups require to inflict the shocking violence and mayhem that we witnessed around Paris over the past several days.
Yet such displays of public solidarity have left me feeling strangely conflicted, and somewhat short of energized. Yes, the surging crowds were peaceful and diverse, with broadly reported displays of mutual support across the geo-political minefields of our era. The participants were united in their determination not to cower in the face of the Islamic State’s medieval, metastasizing extremism.
But now what? And what are we to do with the fathomless problem of determining how much free speech is too much free speech, especially in immigrant-receiving cities that seethe with the messy diversity that muddies any debate about lofty liberal principles.
Indeed, this widely tweeted image (thanks to Tabatha Southey) of a demonstrator’s sign summed up my ambivalence eloquently: “I’m marching but I’m conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.”
It’s worth noting that public reaction, in Europe and elsewhere, to the Charlie Hebdo shootings has been sharply different than to some other recent radical Islamic attacks in big cities, though most caused far more bloodshed.
On July 7, 2005, several British-born men of Pakistani origin set off three bombs in the London subway system that killed 56 people and injured over 700; the suicide bombers had connections to radical Islamic cells in England and Pakistan, as did others arrested in connection with the attack. In the aftermath, there were vigils and condolences from international leaders, but nothing of the magnitude that we’ve seen in the past few days.
On April 15, 2013, two brothers set off explosives on the route of the Boston Marathon, killing three, and injuring or maiming 264 others (a police officer died in a shoot out a few days later that left one of the perpetrators dead). The brothers, with Chechen roots, were also motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs. In the aftermath, the Boston Strong movement galvanized residents and businesses, and supported fundraising for victims. A year later, with tightened security, the Marathon went ahead, with almost record participation.
On the other hand, the 2004 bombing of the Madrid subway, which killed 199 commuters and left 1,450 wounded, prompted vast demonstrations, with well over two million people taking to the streets of the capital to protest the bloodiest land-based terrorist attack in Europe to date.
In all these incidents, terrorists attacked public spaces filled with innocent bystanders. With Hebdo, the three jihadists attacked the public sphere by targeting the satirists who enjoyed taking the piss out of all manner of sacred cows, with the Prophet Mohammed as a particular favorite.
The French love both their revolutionary principles and their mass demonstrations, so yesterday’s outpouring, in Paris and other large cities, wasn’t all that surprising. It was like May, 1968, all over again.
But I’d argue that Torontonians can and perhaps should adopt a more critical stance towards the drama playing out in Paris. In an extraordinarily diverse city, where almost half of the residents were born outside Canada, freedom of expression must share the urban stage with that grittier, and more workaday, principle known as civic pluralism.
Sure, Section 2 of the Charter enshrines the right. But for cities like Toronto to function and thrive, its residents must constantly seek out ways to co-exist, and therefore deploy language that aims to surmount, or at least mitigate, seemingly irreconcilable differences.
I’m not suggesting that the satirists and columnists start pulling their rhetorical punches in order to cow-tow to murderous thugs. But in an urban centre where so many people from so many backgrounds live cheek by jowl, often in crowded apartment buildings, it’s neither censorious nor heavy-handed to expect that those who speak publicly be mindful of the potential impact of their words or pictures on the people with whom we share buses, emergency rooms and check-out lines.
Why? ISIS and Al-Qaeda both depend heavily on actively recruiting young men and women from Western cities, and it seems obvious to me that urban alienation — along with poverty, youth unemployment and geographic isolation — is a critical pre-condition to the sort of radicalization that leads to disasters such as this one.
Of course, lots of other factors come into play — access to citizenship, services, and education, to name but three obvious ones. Still, at such an anxious juncture, when the federal Tories are pledging to enact heavy-handed security laws to combat what Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week described as a “war,” Torontonians and their civic leaders should do everything possible to the ensure that the members of the city’s newcomer communities feel as if they truly belong here.
Full-throated freedom of expression may be the pre-condition to all liberal democracy, but it’s hardly the only foundation upon which to build an inclusive city.